Round One: Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Caps record vs. Toronto this season: 2-1-0
4-2 loss at Toronto on Nov. 26
6-5 overtime win vs. Toronto on Jan. 3
4-1 win at Toronto on April 4
Game 1: April 13 in Washington, 7 p.m. on CSN
Game 2: April 15 in Washington, 7 p.m. on CSN
Game 3: April 17 in Toronto, 7 p.m. on CSN
Game 4: April 19 in Toronto, 7 p.m. on CSN
Game 5 (if necessary): April 21 in Washington, TBD on CSN
Game 6 (if necessary): April 23 in Toronto, TBD
Game 7 (if necessary): April 25 in Washington, TBD on CSN
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It’s no secret how the Maple Leafs got here. With a fantastic collection of young offensive talent, Toronto reached the playoffs a year ahead of schedule. Rookie Auston Matthews is the real deal as he led the team in scoring with 40 goals and 69 points. William Nylander and Mitch Marner were also major contributors with 61 points apiece. That young core mixed with some veteran pieces like James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri helped push the Leafs to 3.05 goals per game, good for fifth in the NHL.
Washington’s offense won’t catch anyone by surprise. In addition to superstars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps are incredibly deep down the middle with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and Jay Beagle. The Caps boast three lines with scoring talent and can easily roll four lines without fear of a major drop-off from the top unit to the fourth. The Caps finished the season as the NHL’s third highest scoring offense at 3.18 GPG.
Toronto games were must-watch all season long not just because of their incredible offensive talent, but because no Maple Leafs lead was safe. Toronto gave away two-goal leads like it was going out of style. Defense was a major issue for the Leafs this season as they allowed 2.85 goals per game, the lowest among all playoff teams. By contrast, Washington had the top defense in the NHL, allowing only 2.16 goals against. On 29 other teams, Kevin Shattenkirk would be a top six defenseman. On Toronto, he would be on the top pair. For the Caps, he’s on the third. That just shows you the depth Washington has on the blue line.
The Jonathan Bernier, James Reimer tandem was mercifully broken up in Toronto over the offseason as the Leafs traded for Frederik Andersen to step in and be their No. 1. He did not disappoint with a .918 save percentage and 4 shutouts. Of the Leafs’ 40 wins this season, only seven were earned by someone other than Andersen.
While Andersen has proven to be a serviceable starter, his numbers pale in comparison to Braden Holtby, who is proving his Vezina-winning 2015-16 season was no fluke. Incredibly, Holtby surpassed most of his stats from last season including GAA (2.07), save percentage (.925) and shutouts (9).
Special teams preview
As good as the Caps are on the power play, Toronto actually finished with a higher percentage of 23.8 (vs. Washington’s 23.1), good for second in the NHL. Despite their defensive woes, the Leafs even managed a respectable penalty kill with a kill rate of 82.5-percent, 10th in the NHL. The Caps were only marginally better with 83.8-percent on the penalty kill. While Washington’s superiority in offense, defense and goaltending can’t be denied, special teams is actually a push.
Barry Trotz joined Toronto head coach Mike Babcock’s staff for Team Canada in the World Cup of Hockey in the fall of 2017. These are two coaches who know each other extremely well. That will add an extra element to this matchup as both coaches try to out-fox the other. As good of a coach as Trotz is, he does not boast the same credentials as Babcock who has won a Stanley Cup and reached the Finals three times.
Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak both suffered injuries in Sunday’s regular season finale against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Neither player was on the ice on Tuesday for Toronto’s practice. Babcock said after Sunday’s game that he did not expected Zaitsev to miss any time so perhaps Tuesday’s absence is just a precaution.
Babcock is "optimistic" Zaitsev and Poak will be ready for Game 1, but adds: "I can't guarantee you anything."— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) April 11, 2017
Maple Leafs starting goalie Frederik Andersen did not play on Sunday after taking a heavy hit in Saturday’s game. He did, however, practice on Tuesday.
Frederik Andersen said he's hopeful he'll be able to play in Game 1— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) April 11, 2017
Tyler Bozak was also absent from practice on Tuesday.
John Carlson missed the last four games of the regular season due to a lower-body injury. On Tuesday when the Caps held their first playoff practice, Carlson was on the ice, but he was not skating with his normal partner Karl Alzner. Instead, he skated on the “fourth pair” with Taylor Chorney. Clearly his status for Thursday’s Game 1 remains in doubt.
Who has the edge?
Washington is better offensively, defensively and in net. Mike Babcock is one of the top coaches in the NHL and Toronto does boast a lot of young talent, but it is not their time yet. The Leafs’ defense will be their downfall in this series.
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